Friday, 22 January 2010

Starch and Scones and Stereotypes

The British, it must be noted, starch their sheets TO DEATH.

I entered my room to find my bed stripped, my comforter folded, and my fresh, immaculate pillowcases standing at attention. I hazarded a poke. Neither a ripple nor wrinkle resulted. The poor things had stiffened into blinding white boards of hard linen discipline. Why, Britain? I'd never known the chief purpose of bedclothes to be strictly salutatory. It was a beastly task to make my bed on that note. Yikes. Calm down with the starch, guys. Blanketry, not potatoes!

Another observation: If a group of unknowning American students goes on a late Sunday afternoon quest for traditional afternoon tea, they will likely encounter the two following obstacles...

1) "Haven't you reservations, then?" the stout matron at the Old Parsonage Inn queried, cocking her head and considering our breathless, tea-craving posse with ill-concealed bewilderment. To enjoy afternoon tea in a hotel or another like establishment, apparently one must make reservations. Ah. Well. Britain, land of tea, we would not have guessed that of you until we encounted three more polite refusals (including a chap who offered tea but professed a current scone shortage).

2) "Cream tea, then?" the waiter at Queen's Lane Cafe (on High Street, quite aways down, we finally found a welcoming tea place), asked. Cream tea. Ah, um. There are, you understand, many variations of tea. Cream tea, high tea, very high tea, champagne tea, and other ambiguous terms abound. All depending on times, seasons, regions, and prices (of which Americans are very much ignorant). Luckily, the Queen's Lane offered only cream tea, which my companions and I accepted with tired smiles. Cream tea in this case: steaming Earl Grey tea with two fist-sized scones packed with raisins, mini cups of strawberry jam and clotted cream on the side.

It may as well have been high tea, so stuffed with only one scone was I. "Sconed" rather than stoned. Ha. And I had cheated a bit and bought a pink lemonade Snapple with my tea. Delectable, delicious. Yum.

In between confused revelations concerning this odd nation, I've been enjoying my classes (and enjoying meeting new people, actually). Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, The Mysteries of Udolpho? Familiar with such topics, I am oft the most vocal student in the class. Freakish. And I'm growing quite attached to Betty and Ka Young, both from South Korea. Angela and I were talking to Ka Young one night about how she learned American English in Korea. We advised her not to copy American habits, however, and then I asked, "What would be the worst habit of Americans?"

"Um, guns," she answered. And we all burst out laughing at the thought of American citizens as gun-toting, violence-crazed maniacs. For that matter, Ka Young mentioned that Americans view all Koreans as about to fire missiles at the U.S. at any second. "Only North Korea government," she told us. Well, good to know you're not personally packing nukes, love.

Funny how people have such sterotyped ideas of each other. People are people. And we truly do all laugh in the same language.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

London, Just Like You Pictured It?

"What are you doing?" Angela, my seatmate for the ride to London, asked. Unborn laughter cracked into her voice as she twisted to face me.

"Bouncing," I answered. Though it came out more like "bow-ow-ow-ow-sing," punctuated by kicks of my booted feet against the bus floor and wild looks toward the rain-saturated windows. "We're almost to LONDON! LOOOOOONNNNDOOOONNNN!" The earbud she'd lent me to share her IPod during the journey popped out and whacked me in the shoulder. I continued to wiggle anyways, until Angela sighed and then let loose her own excited laughter.

I suppose you could say I was mildly excited for my first visit to London.

We started out with a bus tour around London, viewing the sights (appropriately, I thought) through rain drops and half-hazy fogged windows. The Tower and the Tower Bridge stood eerily silent; the massive Eye of London appeared part of a gray-black cyclops. Parliament, the Prime Minister's residence (patrolled by plume-hatted guards in red coats), and so many scarlet doubledeckers gamboling up and down the streets that I felt slightly dizzy.

The British Museum, our next stop, was overwhelming. Mounds of mummies, hundreds of hieroglyph fragments, uncountable un-armed (literally, many of them would fail if they needed to be up in arms) statues! The Rosetta Stone, polished and shining behind glass. The Elgin Marbles, lacking limbs and breathing ancient Grecian mystery. The great stone lions in the lobby, conjuring fierce cat-eyed kings of dusty lands.

I was almost glad to leave for Covent Gardens, my head was so bursting with the sights of famous antiquities!

Lunchtime brought warm paella from a stand in the middle of a Covent Garden courtyard, munched sitting on stone steps. After that, my companions followed my spastic steps into toyshops, past postcard stands, and eventually into a little candy shop selling fudge and toffee. I was reminded a bit of the street performers in Quebec - only British accents and the occasional top hat singled out the corner jugglers, comedians, and tightrope trickers.

Also a opera singer who became very emotional whilst bellowing in Italian, and a group of 20-somethings decked out in faerie garb and running about whispering suspicions concerning mortals. Oh, London.

My favorite part of the day arrived with the sight of Trafalgar Square after a wander through the National Gallery. Insert an odd bagpiper with astonishing lung capacity, gaze out at the fountains, spot Big Ben's tower! Your heart will ache for the beauty of it all.

And you may have to curb the desire to go leap into the fountains as well. Such is life.


Sunday, 17 January 2010

Cornish Pasties and Arabian Nights

On Friday, I rambled around Oxford and sampled my first traditional Cornish pasty. In search of a phone lost on a bus (Danielle left hers on the seat on the way to the dinner at St. Hughes), I practically inhaled the hot, flaky delight of beef, potatoes, turnip, and onion and took joy from the fact the pasty shop sign featured Harry Potter Cornwall script. My companions and I dipped in and out of little artsy shops, tried not to gape at street musicians, and soon entered the part of city centre where many of the Oxford libraries are located.

"This is a dream, right?" I asked Colleen, "This isn't's too beautiful to be real, and I'm not here, really." She laughed and assured me we were truly there as I gazed in open-mouthed wonder at the exterior of the Bodleian.

Later, down Crowley Road and quite turned around, we experienced one of the ethnically diverse parts of Oxford. Rows of squashed together buildings (um, fire hazard?) of varying colors, devoted here to a Greek cafe, there to a Polish market. The sidewalks were packed with people in robes, strange caps, turbans. All speaking languages that made my head light with effort.

Perhaps this clash of smells and sounds contributed to our getting entirely lost...two hours later, our footsore and slightly limping band of three called a taxi from a free "car hire" phone in a Tesco (so useful!). Our return to Logan House allowed us just enough time to don theatre-going clothes and walk to The North Wall Arts Center in Summertown.

As for the Arabian Nights, ah! British storytellers worthy of medals, immersing the audience in the tales of Scheherazade, queen of Persia. Sandwiched between Betty and a boy from Holland whose name is pronounced Hi-eh, I marveled at the storytellers' use of hand gestures, witty words, and music. During intermission, I spoke with Hi-eh - we each divulged our favorite Disney movies (his being Fantasia and Bambi) and discussed The Golden Compass. At one point, Betty interjected to question him about Amsterdam's having legal weed and prostitution. I listened, amused. Moments later, our Dutch friend went to the bar for a drink and came back bearing orange-juice bottles for the four of us. Very sweet.

Only at St. Clare's here in Oxford would I start my day off with Cornish pastry and end with Persian folktales and a Dutchman buying me a beverage. Love it.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Culture Crush and Recuperation

Last night I attended a welcome dinner held at St. Hugh's College of Oxford University. Bashfully reeling about in my brown boots and new jeans, I barrelled through champagne starters, mercifully with Angela to keep me company. A good thing too, because a few of the male Korean teachers studying at St. Clare's until the end of this month popped up and began a toothy interrogation.

Angela and I will now be present in two Korean English teachers' study-abroad photo albums. Laughable.

At dinner, I was further forced to "mingle" and found my seat between a soft-spoken Korean woman (we commiserated on the awkwardness of such dinners) and a woman from Spain who does not like meat. A Canadian sat across from me, next to another Korean fellow who asked me if I watched/knew the show 90210. Only he got the numbers mixed up. I told him I didn't watch much tv, my house being filled with books, and my dinner companions expressed their belief that I am a rarity.

For my part, I managed the three courses with tolerable grace (though I still cannot make out what some of the "winter vegetables" were). I've decided that white wine is decent - I drank a few sips out of politeness and inwardly rejoiced that I didn't shatter the glass in my distraction. Twenty-six countries represented in one large hall, and a girl from Pawtucket amidst it all.

Understandably, I took this afternoon after classes to recover. Bones in bed, poorly-made grilled cheese (made with Edam cheese and barely grilled for fear of setting off the sensitive fire alarm), broccolli and stilton soup, and Roy. Social skills at last RESTED.

I've also lately made a snowman in Bardwell's garden (Daina, who had never seen snow before these past few days, helped) and visited Keble College with my Gothic Fiction class to view gothic arctitecture. Through it all: my trusty rainboats navigated me through slush and puddles. As my gothic fiction professor said, grinning, "Ah, the confidence of a wellie-wearer!"

Confidence. I think I'm gaining some British confidence. This weekend will bring London and more adventures! More accents and culture clashes!

Bring it on.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

"Big Saucy Bangers" and Other Introductory British Details

I'm snatching a moment to catch my gentle readers up before I venture out into the now rapidly falling snow. My second day in Oxford slammed me into both British culture and the enchantment of having professors with the accent. I had Shakespeare in the morning, wriggling with excitement as trips to see "various performances, including in the new Globe and Stratford-Upon-Avon" were detailed.

And then in my travel writing tutorial (which is one-on-one, apparently) promptly made the instructor blush and scramble to cover an embarassed stammer when I declared my conception in England as a reason for coming to this odd place. Um, oops? (But it was adorable, in a pompous sort of way.)

In between I had a "walk-about" with Danielle (one of the many USD girls overrunning St. Clare's at the moment) and a kind South Korean woman named Betty. We wandered past the "Dragon School" (where Emma Watson attended before Harry Potter film fame) and in a general circle.

I couldn't help it - I started snapping pictures of the mailboxes. They inspire a person to write something, if only to be able to pop it into the stately red cylinder which bears the script ER. Must obtain postcards soon...

[Insert hurried rush to class here...must add to this later...]

Back, if a few days later. In any case, my first trip to the market with my new mates was memorable. Would you believe that the British advertise canned goods entitled "Big Saucy Bangers" without a thought to possible resulting innuendos? "Cover me!" I called to Joanne (another USD mate), as I snuck a picture of the offending shelf. Also salad "cream." What is this obsession with mayonaise products, lads? Or don't you British believe in heart attacks?

They also do not sell cream of wheat or salt at the Co-Op in Summertown, as Daina and Colleen found out. "Porridge?" Daina ventured to a slouching salesboy, "But out of"

"What, d'you mean posh porridge or non-posh?" he answered, moving toward the oatmeal shelves.

Daina: "Posh? Um, student-without-much-money porridge?"

Posh Porridge Co-Op Boy: "Ah! That's me as well!" *points to the Co-Op brand of oatmeal and cheerfully bids Daina luck*

She still has not gotten her cream of wheat.

That same day - after a hilarious trundle and bit of bus catchery back to Logan House (the bags broke and laughter bent us conspicuously over several times on the sidewalk) - I visited my first pub. Now. The Royal Oak, which features a sign depicting someone who vaguely resembles Sir Isaac Newton, looks tiny from the curb. About as wide as a downtown shop with an ancient door. Unassuming, only a small pub, described by Carla the activities coordinator as "cozy." Just "around the corner" from Bardwell.

It was a half hour's stroll through the January nip to enter and find that it is in fact a veritable maze of dark mahogany, crimson curtains, and crowds of patrons in various stages of sobriety or lack thereof.

Intimidating as The Royal Oak at first appeared, my little American group (6 Californians and me) found a corner near a table of feverishly photo-snapping Koreans and then sought the bar. Much debate, a smidge of necessary shoving, and some anxiety yielded a spot before the bartender. I ordered a club sandwich and mulled wine, chiefly because my companions and I were unaware of how one might "mull" wine. Half a pint, it was thrust into my hand frothing hot, burning my fingers and spewing steam. When we finally relocated our table I was able to make the following observations:

1) Mulled wine is red wine, heated and spiced. The British add cloves and cinnamon. And also apparently invoke the fire gods to increase the intensity of the beverage as it cools, oddly enough. It began to burn my throat, but by then I'd had most of the glass with my mates and was feeling rather warm.

2) British bacon is limp and extraordinarily SALTY.

3) HP sauce. What is it? We think it may be alcoholic A1 sauce. It was on every table. And made my tastebuds wince.

Our walk/bus ride home was amusing. I was giggly, huggy, and warm, and my friends insisted that the wine had definitely "affected me." I am glad for the sake of British tradition that I sampled mulled wine, but I doubt I will be drinking it again any time soon. It'll linger.

The following day brought more classes, as well as paranoia. Or perhaps not paranoia. The French girls in one of the Bardwell lounges kept casting peeved glances at me. Well, silly things, don't glare at me just because we Americans caught one of you ahem necking in the laundry room after the house meeting. "French-kissing" among the rumbling appliances to emerge with cold Parisian indifference to try to cover your high color.

Paris versus Pawtucket. In a fight, I'd win because your smoke-ridden lungs would give out. Merde, you would cry.

Avoiding the French girls and speaking up in my very small classes made me grateful to stroll to City Center with Danielle on Tuesday afternoon. Pret Manger Cafe! Organic hot cocoa with a literal mound of marshmallows on top. Mmmm. The little pay-as-you-go phone I purchased from a British woman with lots of braids at T-Mobile. The odd KFC - it looks so out of place! The sounds of British children engaging in snowball fights. The smell of all edibles, from Cornish pastries to falafel. City Center may fast become a beloved place. For that matter, Oxford is fast becoming a beloved place. And the Californians help as well.

Who would have thought?

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Departure and Arrival: In Which I Shake the Metaphorical Etch-a-sketch

I've done it. Shaken my life up. If my life is an etch-a-sketch, all the grainy bits have retreated from the screen, waiting to be zingingly redrawn. Self-actualization via Oxford.

I'm in England, jet-lagged as anything and feverishly noting that my internal dialogue is already working on a sturdy English accent. It's 4:38 at home, 9:38 pm here, and I think perhaps I need sleep. Having barrelled through security with bated breath and false confidence, I managed to keep myself alive during my flight. True, during takeoff I did experience the OH-MY-GOD-I'M-GOING-TO-DIE hyperventilitating fit. But Katherine Heigel, my seat-mate from Chicago, and the captain's lilting voice got me through.

At least until the bloody turbulence.

Ah, well. I slept through most of the bone-rattling wind-bursts and awoke an hour off from London. There followed a hectic trek/drag/trudge through Heathrow's dungeon-maze to the bus station. Where I witnessed a sign.


I literally did a happy dance on the curb, betwist a British backpacking couple and a broad Pakistani bus attendant. Not YIELD, but GIVE WAY. And yes, my life has given way - given way to plunge me into a foreign culture that delights me to the marrow. The bus driver drove on the wrong side, several passersby mentioned tea, and "lifts" rather than elevators abounded.

It's probably the jet lag talking, but I was ready to hug even the pigeons for standing witness to my arrival to jolly old England.

And St. Clare's: Abandoned by my cabbie at the end of a dangerously frosted Bardwell Road, I yanked my suitcases after and laughed aloud. At one point a mother and her young daughter stuck their heads out a flat window to ask me "if I was quite all right." I looked the fool, but felt better when I reached 18 Bardwell and the perpetually cheerful Brit Manuela, as well as a few kids from USD who are already shaping up to be what the British might call "mates."

Daina, for example, saved my skin at least 12 times when I almost forgot to look right for cars on our exploratory walk down Banbury toward the city center. Things I found on our walk that I love: the red mailboxes, the red phonebooths (!), the red doors, all the churches, the small Brit children, the looks of the many pubs! Ivy, signs that promise "Humps for 55 yards," Nanny911-style taxi's, the little British dog outside the co-op!

Really though. I can barely contain myself.

Other news: My roommate is Venezuelan. I keep forgetting her name, she's a twin, and she makes me wish I remembered my Spanish classes. Also: shower = odd. Just flat floor with a drain and spray hand-thinger. AND YIKES IS THE WATER COLD! Must toughen up. "Mustn't grumble," as the Brits say.

I'm manically sleep-deprived so this probably has made little sense. But the snow is pretty, and I'm in England, so even if I miss home and get confused as to why the French boy I met at dinner seems so UTTERLY attractive, I'm bound to be crazily falling for Oxford.

Shaking the Etch-a-sketch is a tricky business.